5 October 2015

Will Boris back Brexit to beat Osborne to the Tory leadership?


Inside the secure zone it is party time for the Tories. Once those attending Conservative conference navigate their way past the protesters, they find the bars packed with revellers. The chants of the hard left and pampered middle class anarchists who should be drafted into the Iraqi army and forced to fight ISIS were quite something to behold though. “Tory scum! Journalist scum‎! Walk of shame! Enjoy your drinks you scum.” I certainly will, responded someone loudly, I’ll be having a large gin and tonic.

Apart from the spitting, the Tories are quite enjoying the protests. The futility and hostility of it all underlines how utterly screwed Labour and the left is post-election.

That was apparent too during a fascinating event organised by “the Good Right,” Tim Montgomerie’s venture aimed at broadening the appeal of his party. The Legatum Institute were the sponsors.‎ It was a remarkable evening thanks to the quality of the discussion, featuring a panel of four: Michael Gove, Business Secretary Sajid Javid, Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson and Iain Duncan Smith. Labour, when it was a governing party in its pomp, used to be able to host such events featuring a wide range of highly talented individuals. Now? Not so much.

But beyond the frank discussion on poverty, education reform and capitalism, what stood out was the needling between Gove and Javid.

There are so many cross-currents in the Tory leadership race already underway that it is sometimes difficult to keep up.

Gove and Javid are both Eurosceptics, and if either or both would join the ‎Out/Leave campaign it would be a great prize for the Brexit crowd. But both need to consider the role of George Osborne. Although Javid has been close to Osborne he has leadership ambitions of his own and may stand. Gove, as he showed last night, is highly lucid and eloquent but he refuses to stand. He is for his friend George although it will be fascinating to see how the EU business impacts on relationships in the Cameron and Osborne inner circles.

The early skirmishing on the subject inequality last night at the Good Right event was of the highest calibre.‎ Gove delivered a broadside against senior bankers and people who make lots of money from money. He lambasted “crony capitalism” and invoked the great trust-buster Teddy Roosevelt.

Oh look, there’s Sajid Javid, who made his money as a banker. He was very good at it, I’m told. Javid responded with a heartfelt blast against privilege and a plea for more social mobility. The son of a bus driver (Sajid’s father drove a bus) should face no impediment to getting to the top, was the message.

What could these two men be getting at?

Further complicating matters, there is the question of what Boris will do on the EU question. Incredibly, the London mayor and main rival to Osborne still has a reputation as a Eurosceptic, based presumably on his columns of 10 years ago. This erroneous view exists even among Tory donors. It should be quite clear. Boris is pro-EU, from a pro-EU family that sees itself as transnational and inherently European. His father would kill him if he renounced that heritage and backed Leave.

I wonder if he might do it though. Particularly if it ends up being his only chance of stopping Osborne from ascending to the Tory leadership when David Cameron retires in 2019 to snooze on the sofa in rural Oxfordshire and pop out for the occasional pint.

Osborne has positioned himself as the chief negotiator in the renegotiations with other EU countries and as the de facto leader of the emerging In/Remain campaign. That is all fine if the vote delivers a comfortable “in”.

If the vote is lost, or only very narrowly won with the Tory party split down the middle, then it will be damage the architect of the strategy. That’s George Osborne. A Tory MP put it well: “If George thinks ‎the path to the leadership lies in him running the Yes campaign then he may find out he is sorely mistaken.”

That leaves Boris with a tricky decision worthy of the great moral dilemmas with which his beloved Ancients grappled. Renounce his pro-EU position and become the leader of Out? That could be either a stroke of genius that sinks Osborne or a catastrophic, blatant bid for power that fails. Or row in behind the Cameron and Osborne Establishment orthodoxy and look like a compliant wimp? What a call.

Iain Martin is Editor of CapX.